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Whittling down a lifetime of earnings—a prospect most of us would like to avoid—is the goal of many of the billionaires and multimillionaires in BusinessWeek's (MHP ) annual ranking of Most Generous Givers. If their megagifts to causes ranging from cancer research to civil rights to the prevention of meth addiction are any indication, they're making good progress. Sixteen of the 50 U.S. philanthropists on our list gave north of $100 million this year, nine donated $200 million or more, and one towered above them all with $723 million in gifts.
Many of the givers on our list, including Bill and Melinda Gates, Michael and Susan Dell, and George Soros, continue to send big checks abroad to support global health, development, and democracy. But the recipients of most of the new nine-digit donations this year are American institutions either near the givers' homes or closely tied to their personal experience. Donors want to stay close to their money in other ways as well, demanding a high level of involvement to ensure that the fortunes they worked hard to make will be used effectively to alleviate the problems they consider most urgent.
The largest new gift on our list comes from Jon Huntsman, whose eponymous chemical manufacturing company was acquired in a deal valued at $10.6 billion this year. Most of his giving goes to cancer research; in July he gave over $700 million to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Utah. Three-quarters of his lifetime giving will be focused in Utah, he says, where he lives and where his son is governor. The choice of cancer research is also personal: The disease took his mother, stepmother, and father, and he has battled it three times.
David Koch, a newcomer to our list, is fighting cancer as well and pledged $100 million for a research center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "When one has or has had cancer, one becomes a crusader to try to find a cure," he says. The motivation to fund research into an illness that touches them is also behind the giving of Ted and Vada Stanley. Stanley, chairman of collectibles company MBI, which has created memorabilia for the likes of the National Football League and Coca-Cola (KO ), says he and his wife initially considered giving money to the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that provides relief for refugees around the globe. But when their college-age son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the mid-1980s, "it was clear what our cause was going to be," he says. The Stanleys have donated $568 million to support research into mental illness.
Sometimes the backstory to a gift comes from a childhood experience. That's how it is for Lorry Lokey, 80, the founder of Business Wire, a newswire that distributes press releases for thousands of companies, and which Lokey sold to Warren Buffett in 2006 for an estimated $600 million. Lokey's gifts to libraries across Oregon are tied to the memory of an Oregon librarian, Mary Hancock Bell, who sparked his passion for reading when he was young. A love of learning also fueled Lokey's $74.5 million donation to the University of Oregon, bringing his total there to $132 million in four years. While large donations to one's alma mater are common, there's a slight twist with Lokey's: He didn't go to the University of Oregon. He would have, if not for an uncle who steered him toward Stanford University. "While I have great loyalty to Stanford," says Lokey, "I try to find out where the money will do the most good."
Sentiment often spurs a decision to fund a cause, but donors are increasingly businesslike in how they give. Some, like T. Denny Sanford, chief executive of bank and credit-card holding company United National, have attached stipulations to gifts, such as a cost cap on construction. When the University of Minnesota reported that the stadium Sanford had pledged to build in 2003 would cost $300 million and not the $120 million he had projected, he revoked his pledge. This year, Sanford's $400 million pledge to Sioux Valley Hospitals & Health System in South Dakota, renamed Sanford Health, vaulted him to No. 17, up from No. 49 a year ago.
Robert Day, CEO of Trust Co. of the West, spent six months hashing out details of a gift to his alma mater, Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. He and administrators settled on a $200 million price tag for The Robert Day Scholars Program, which will fund scholarships for juniors and seniors. Day thinks MBA degrees are a waste of time, so his gift pays for leadership training to prepare students to lead organizations ranging from multinationals to hospitals to law firms. Day was inspired to give by his friend, Eli Broad, No. 8 on BusinessWeek's ranking. "Eli gets up in the morning and says, I would like to do this stem-cell research at UCLA,' and he goes from there to figure out how much it's going to cost," says Day.
Such discipline makes it easier to get a sense of the impact one's money can have. For a huge organization such as the Gates Foundation, "it's important for us to learn what's working and what's not, and to see which models show promise," says Fay Twersky, head of the foundation's Impact Planning & Improvement Office, which was set up last year. But many donors judge impact less formally. Direct feedback is enough for Sandy and Joan Weill, who have donated more than $300 million to Cornell University and its Weill Medical College. Says the former chief executive and chairman of Citigroup (C ): "As in business, we constantly evaluate the return on our investment when it comes to giving." By working closely with groups they support, "we are able to see firsthand the impact being made."
By Aili McConnon and Jessica Silver-Greenberg, with Joshua Vittor